We continue with the Old Testament lection this week, this time with the transfer of the prophetic mantle from Elijah to Elisha. The new guy couldn’t have asked for a more powerful call to prophetic ministry than the way the story unfolds in the Book of Second Kings:
Now when the Lord was about to take Elijah up to heaven by a whirlwind, Elijah and Elisha were on their way from Gilgal. Elijah said to Elisha, “Stay here; for the Lord has sent me as far as Bethel.” But Elisha said, “As the Lord lives, and as you yourself live, I will not leave you.” So they went down to Bethel… Then Elijah said to him, “Stay here; for the Lord has sent me to the Jordan.” But he said, “As the Lord lives, and as you yourself live, I will not leave you.” So the two of them went on. Fifty men of the company of prophets also went, and stood at some distance from them, as they both were standing by the Jordan. Then Elijah took his mantle and rolled it up, and struck the water; the water was parted to the one side and to the other, until the two of them crossed on dry ground. When they had crossed, Elijah said to Elisha, “Tell me what I may do for you, before I am taken from you.” Elisha said, “Please let me inherit a double share of your spirit.” He responded, “You have asked a hard thing; yet, if you see me as I am being taken from you, it will be granted you; if not, it will not.” As they continued walking and talking, a chariot of fire and horses of fire separated the two of them, and Elijah ascended in a whirlwind into heaven. Elisha kept watching and crying out, “Father, father! The chariots of Israel and its horsemen!” But when he could no longer see him, he grasped his own clothes and tore them in two pieces. He picked up the mantle of Elijah that had fallen from him, and went back and stood on the bank of the Jordan. He took the mantle of Elijah that had fallen from him, and struck the water, saying, “Where is the Lord, the God of Elijah?” When he had struck the water, the water was parted to the one side and to the other, and Elisha went over. –2 Kings 2:1-2, 6-14 NRSV
Such stories, filled as they are with miracle and mystery, crop up here and there throughout the Hebrew Bible (our Christian Old Testament). It’s easy and quite understandable for us to get a bit sidetracked as we ponder them in awe and wonder. At its heart, however, this is a story of transition in ministry, and in that we who call ourselves disciples of Jesus Christ can relate.
Elisha asked to inherit a double share of Elijah’s spiritual power and authority. No, he wasn’t being greedy. In the ancient biblical world such a double share was the portion doled out to the eldest son as his rightful inheritance. So, actually, Elisha is simply asking to be Elijah’s heir as the most important prophet in town, so to speak. Note in the story that there were 50 other prophets watching from a distance. Although they didn’t view the same incredible sight of a fiery chariot coming to pick up Elijah, they did witness Elisha using Elijah’s mantle (cloak) afterward to part the river water–shades of Moses and Joshua, you think?
It was critical for Elisha to exhibit some proof that it was, in fact, Israel’s God who called him to his prophetic mission as Elijah’s successor. That was not something anybody could just fake on his or her own. Herein lies another insight for those of us in the 21st century after Christ: The initiative for mission comes from divine sources, not our own imagination, however fertile or creative it may be.
As a result there can be no more powerful and authoritative witness for our mission than that the Spirit of Almighty God is somehow behind it. That’s important not only for us but for those to whom we’re sent, as well. By definition ministerial leadership cannot exist in a vacuum, divorced from its setting in community. Leadership without authentic spiritual undergirding can lead to disastrous results (extreme case in point: the mass suicide in Jonestown years ago led by would-be prophet Jim Jones).
In case you’re still wondering about the need for passion in mission, here’s a reminder of a couple brothers named Jake and Elwood (no, certainly not Elijah and Elisha or Moses and Joshua by any means) who responded to a very different “mission from God”:
My most recent book, Speak to the Bones: How to Be a Prophetic People in a Time of Exile, is up on Amazon in both print and e-book formats: 161-page Book ; Kindle e-book. The ancient Hebrew prophets can serve as guides for modern-day prophetic communities to engage in actions for peace and social justice. Each of the 10 chapters includes questions for reflection and discussion, making this great for class use. My previous book What Was Paul Thinking? is also available on Amazon in both print and Kindle e-book editions.</emnbsp;